Thursday 20 September 2018

May in Salzburg: on pragmatism and pathology

If Brexit was supposed to be a moment of national renewal and pride with Britain striding optimistically towards its bright new future something has gone badly wrong. There are two versions of what Theresa May has done in Salzburg, neither of them especially edifying. On the one hand, she was demanding that the EU must now make compromises; on the other she was imploring the EU to recognize the domestic constraints that require her to ask it to do so.

It should go without saying that this is nothing like how the Leave campaign claimed it would be. Neither ‘demanding’ nor ‘imploring’ would be necessary: the EU would be falling over itself to offer Britain anything it wanted. This isn’t a rhetorical point: it has significant political implications, which I’ll return to.

Beyond that, demands for compromises and concessions fall into the pattern of truculence that has characterised the government’s approach to the negotiations from the start, including Theresa May’s willing embrace of the “bloody difficult woman” tag. A visitor from Mars might get the impression that Britain was being forced to leave the EU against its wishes, and therefore stubbornly insisting on as much as it could salvage, rather than choosing to leave in the confident knowledge that life outside would be much better.

As for pleas to appreciate British political pressures, these compound the widespread sense abroad that the British polity has descended into a kind of madness. A country formerly associated with pragmatism and a certain kind of ruthless self-interest – the first often admired, the second at least respected - finds itself hostage to a rag tag of perhaps fifty or so eccentric, if not in some cases outright delusional, backbench extremists.

What is rather demeaning is that there is every sign that the EU will indeed do as much as it can to rescue May from her tormentors, as if taking pity on a parent whose toddler is in a tantrum, or perhaps more accurately for fear of having to deal directly with the toddler. But it’s not at all clear that anything it can do will end the tantrum. As every Conservative leader, including May, has found the hard core Brexiters are unappeasable and every concession made to them leads to demands for even more.

The pathology of the Ultras

This almost pathological condition has many strange consequences, some of we’ve seen this week. One potentially significant development has been, indeed, a concession from the EU in the form of Michel Barnier’s proposals to “de-dramatise” the Northern Ireland backstop proposal, including the use of technology to significantly limit border checks.

Cue triumphant cries from Brexiters that they had been right all along, and that new technology could solve the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – along with a slew of vitriolic insults about EU duplicity. But, alas, their monomania (along with some misleading reporting in parts of the British media) had led them to error: the border Barnier had been referring to was the putative sea border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, not the land border*.

As this became realised, the proposals were rejected by the DUP and, subsequently, Theresa May. Still, it did raise the delightfully ironic prospect that Brexiters might, through their own propensity to misunderstand detailed practicalities, in some circumstances mistakenly accept as concessions to their position things which were not. At the least, the government’s hope must be that some constructive ambiguity may allow a deal to be made which will pass muster with them.

The barriers to such a hope were evident in another consequence of the extremism of the Ultra Brexiters which was on display this week: their rejection of Michael Gove’s appeal to them to support the Chequers Proposal ‘for now’ in anticipation that post-Brexit a different approach could be taken. As discussed in my previous post, Gove’s idea has many consequences, with one being that if the Ultras – through ignorance or wilfulness – don’t accept his argument, this makes the prospect of a political crisis much more likely. Such a crisis could, just conceivably, bring Brexit to an end, which would be the richest irony of all.

That they will not pay heed even to one of the leading figures in the Leave campaign underscores the ingrained, reckless, almost anarchistic impulses of the Ultras. These impulses mean that whatever concessions the EU may make now they may well not get the Prime Minister off the ERG hook. But, in any case, it is hardly the case that the underlying diagnosis that May is the pragmatic ‘buffer’ between the EU and the Ultras is well-founded.

The myth of May’s pragmatism

Actually, her premiership has been marked by a litany of monumentally poor judgments: not seeking a consensual, soft Brexit when she had the chance; pointlessly fighting the Gina Miller court case; failing to call out the extremist ‘enemies of the people’ rhetoric; triggering Article 50 with no agreed government position; calling and fluffing the general election; signing the phase 1 agreement that she subsequently declared (as regards the Irish backstop) to be impossible; and, when belatedly softening her approach at Chequers, producing a plan that would satisfy no one. Throughout, she has mistaken stubbornness for strength. Far from being pragmatic, she has consistently backed herself – and the country – into unnecessary and impossible corners.

That remains evident in her refusal to concede even the bare possibility of another referendum (or, even, of seeking an Article 50 extension) under any circumstances whatsoever, even though this just might provide the final escape hatch from the impasse created by all these poor decisions. It would certainly be politically impossible for her to advocate such a vote now, but it is reckless not to leave it open as a contingency, however remote.

And whatever the (very considerable) political and practical obstacles to such a vote, none exists in principle. It’s manifestly absurd to say that Brexit must go ahead even if the majority no longer want it. The foreign leaders who today, rather wistfully it seems to me, said they hope for Britain to have such a vote are only articulating what almost every person I’ve spoken to in EU-27 countries thinks: surely, in the end, a way will be found to do so.

Which brings us back to the way that what is unfolding – and will continue to unfold - is entirely different to how the advocates of Brexit depicted it. The argument for another referendum has never been that the first one yielded an outcome that almost half the country didn’t want; it is that what it has set in train is nothing like what the other half of the country, who voted leave, were promised they would get.

Update: A quick addition in the light of subsequent events in Salzburg today, which are being reported as the EU pretty much completely undermining May by rejecting the Chequers Proposal, suggesting that no attempt was made to give her political cover at home. I don’t read it this way. The proposal was never going to be accepted, for reasons set out on this blog amongst many other places. So EU attempts to help May out were never going to take the form of such an acceptance. Instead, what they said was just a fairly polite statement of the obvious (with dipomatic references to ‘positive elements’) rather than a hostile rebuke. That it is being reported as it is in the UK reflects the way that our internal political dialogue has been allowed to become so out of kilter with reality – at the very least to the extent that absurd fantasies are pandered to as if they are as worthy of attention as any other view - that reminders of that reality appear extraordinary and outrageous. But those reminders were bound to come, and with increasing clarity as the time before Brexit shortens. More in future posts, no doubt.

*It might then be wondered: couldn’t the same approach apply to the land border? No, because whilst it reduces controls it doesn’t mean the complete absence of new physical infrastructure and checks. And, also, I would think, because the volumes of goods crossings on the two borders are very different. In particular, there are almost certainly far more dense supply chains that cross Ireland/NI than there are that cross NI/GB.

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